Poet-at-large

 Sonia On My Mind

by Askia Muhammad

Sonia Sanchez is the Un-Cola of Pimp Juice.

A woman, Black Muslim Nationalist Cultural Warrior Woman with a Latino name. You know she has her enemies confused.

Can you say Eartha Kitt meets Assatta Shakur.

Rowr-r-r-r.

Can you say a poetic voice? Can you say Legends of the Deuce and a Quarter? The Buick Motor Car. Can you say Sonia Sanchez, the Anti-Music Video? As seen on TV.

Just who the hell is she, this icon? This Call and Respond Voice of reasonable Black Magic? We a BaddDDD People! Badder than bad, in fact. She’s a bad majorette. And we be Sun People steppin’ right with her.

So many things were decided for us and by us in 1968.

Sonia was from the East Coast. For those of us who had come of age only on the West Coast she was way ahead of us. Sonia was a fully developed, mature Black cultural trailblazer. But she was also young Black woman in all the feminist ways and all the revolutionary ways at San Francisco State. We were all young then. Sonia was just way ahead of us. She was already a leader, an icon, a role model, so it was strange meeting her again in and around Muhammad Mosque No. 26, Fillmore and Geary Streets, where everyone had checked their egos at the front door in the search-room. Sonia was an intellectual. She talked about anything and everything. And she talked strong in favor of the Nation of Islam.

And there she was, in the MGT & GCC, Sister Sonia 5X with Brother Charles 23X, father of the twins, Minister Henry, Captains Albert and Harold. Brother Charles was director of the University of Islam. But Sister Sonia still had a formidable repertoire all over the cultural realm. She showed out. She exaggerated some ghetto sounds in her sets like they’d never been exaggerated before. She is now, literally a precursor to performance poetry. Sonia is to a capella poetry what Sweet Honey in The Rock are to four part harmony.

She kept it academic and we were able to keep watching Sonia perform and develop. We did not have to see her Crib on M-TV in order to know we were supposed to admire her. Besides, there was no M-TV then.

Sonia Sanchez talked about just what makes the world go around, just like The Temptations, but Sonia did not go off to “Cloud Nine” with them, when they and our popular culture first started “trippin.”

For me, my first epiphany was in 1968. Sonia spoke at San Jose State. Her message went through my mind like a fire traveling down a fuse. And then it rained. Big thunderstorm. Black clouds. That was the first Black season for me, 1968, a rainstorm after a poetry reading by Sonia Sanchez.

The 1967-1968 season was also a milestone in the Black Liberation Movement all over the country. I was in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time, in the aura of Sonia Sanchez, a Black Muslim Nationalist Cultural Warrior Woman with a Latino name.

That was a time when Black folks were, more loudly than ever before demanding from White America something that had never been demanded before: a new way of thinking America. Independence, separation, reparations. Black Power.

The White establishment gave us its answer: Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered April 4, 1968. That summer however, like no time since the Watts Riot before it, White American collective guilt was at its all time high. Five words: Jobs, internships, opportunities for Negroes.

The Black Power-led anti-war movement had forced Lyndon Johnson to give up his mandate to govern. Just like today, the White Leftists and the Centrists in American politics could not agree on who would succeed LBJ in leading the American center-left, Civil Rights coalition. Robert F. Kennedy was killed 4 ½ years after his brother the President had been assassinated. Camelot had been sacked by the Dukes of Hazard.

Hubert Humphrey–a former Senator who became Vice President, and then the defeated Democratic Presidential nominee who sought to succeed a Democratic president–was compared to Richard Nixon the way Al Gore was compared to George W. Bush in the 2000 Election: “The Lesser of Two Evils.”

I interned at Newsweek’s Los Angeles Bureau in 1968 where I met Quincy Troupe who was a friend of Karl Fleming the Bureau Chief. I attended a summer-long poetry workshop taught by Louise Merriweather, and I hung out after work in Watts at Black Panther Party Lieutenant, Paul Mossette’s house on 107th and Hooper, near the railroad tracks with a Sister named Cookie who I met at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, the West Coast’s first discotheque. Erica Huggins and Bunchy Carter used to hang out at Paul’s house, but I didn’t really know them. Paul made me remember that I knew him from a Little League baseball team at Ross Snyder Park where I used to ride my bike with Harold Chappelle.

That was my pedigree. I used it to get my poetry published in Quincy’s first book: Watts Writers and Poets, a couple of other anthologies, and right onto the pages of one annual fiction edition and two annual poetry editions of Negro Digest (which eventually became Black World), published by John H. Johnson, owner of Jet and Ebony, and edited by Hoyt Fuller.

But unlike Sonia–who already had a place in the Upper Room of the militant Black literary establishment to go along with her prodigious skills–I was an unknown, C.K. Moreland Jr., who was fast becoming Charles Twenty-X, and just as quickly learning that the Black intellectual establishment was by and large, hostile to the Nation of Islam, just as the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was, in many ways, hostile to the culture of the Black intellectual elite. None of my letters to Hoyt were ever answered after I gleefully wrote him and told him that I had joined the Nation.

So the fact that Sonia spoke positively about the Nation in her unmistakable voice, and actually knew NOI folks all over the country was really gratifying along with the recognition that she retained the high level of respect from her peers at the same time.

I continued to work at becoming a journalist. I became the Bay Area correspondent for Muhammad Speaks newspaper. Sonia just continued being Sonia.

I covered the strange case of W.O. Nolan, the Soledad Prison inmate and prison-rights organizer who was murdered on the exercise yard in 1969. His father lived in Oakland.

It was a technique prison officials would successfully use for the next 35 years, especially in California. It was recently exposed in national news reports. The intended target is engaged in an altercation on the yard. Guards in the tower simply shoot the mark–sniper style–from the tower in order to quell the disturbance of course. They are jail-yard assassinations. That’s the imposition of the death penalty. Save the state the expense of a trial.

About three days later a guard was found dead after having been beaten and thrown off the Third Tier. A few days after that, George Jackson, John Cluchette, and Fleeta Drumgo–the Soledad Three–were charged with the guard’s murder.

I met, photographed and interviewed Georgia Jackson and her youngest son Jonathan. She was the mother of George, the No. 1 Champion of his innocence within the unjust criminal just-us system. He got an in-determinant 5-year-to-life sentence for a $40 gas-station robbery, and the parole board did then what mandatory-minimum sentences are doing in even greater numbers today: keeping Black males during their prime reproductive years, on prison lockdown!

I fantasized about the liaison between George and Angela Davis in the San Quentin Cellblock. Then came the jailbreak led by Jonathan, joined in by Ruchell Magee, attempting to get George freed. Jonathan was killed. Angela was indicted. She fled. She was captured.

I took Bean Pies to Angela at the San Jose Jail where she was held–denied bail–during her trial. I covered the trial for Muhammad Speaks. Angela was acquitted. Sonia just kept right on being Sonia. The Lord was in His Heavenly House.

Thanks to Allah, I was plucked out of the ranks of the Bay Area FOI by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad himself, to eventually become Editor-in-Chief of Muhammad Speaks. I left Mosque No. 26 and Sister Sonia, and Brother Charles 23X and his partner, Brother Michael 8X, to go to Chicago where I really commenced to “Talkin’ About the Nation of Islam.”

The next time I saw Sister Sonia, she was being introduced as the Minister of Culture, or some-such, by Emam Warithudeen Mohamed–then Wallace D. Muhammad, Supreme Minister of the Nation of Islam. He had given her a Muslim name–I think it was Sister Hannan.

Sister Sonia’s Muslim name, whatever it was, didn’t stick just as the Nation in 1975 didn’t stick together, not as The Nation of Islam. Those of us who were professionally confined to the work of the Nation were then free to seek positions elsewhere. Sister Sonia remained on her post in the academic world.

About one month before it officially changed its name to Bilalian News, I left Muhammad Speaks to eventually become City Editor of The Chicago Daily Defender. Louis Martin, The Defender’s Editorial Director then sent me to Washington to cover The White House, beginning with the Jimmy Carter Presidency.

In Washington I found A.B. Spellman, Gaston Neal, Amiri Baraka, Sonia’s crowd, Sheila, Jonetta, Minerva–the Jazz Crowd. I’m talking Albert Ayler and Sun Ra. District Curators, 930 F Street, Miya Gallery. I’m talking about Sonia’s on My Mind. Thunderclaps. Big Black cloud mother in a tiny body on the distant horizon, walking, sprawling in her wake across the sky. She is the rainstorm. They call her Thunder head and the sky turns black in her honor. Wherever she goes, the once gray streets are now wet and black and shiny like me.

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